Allure of the Big Sky

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
November 3, 2011

Author’s Note: This column was originally published in the “Community” section of a Nov. 3, 2011, special edition of the Exponent.

The allure of the Big Sky, as seen from Black Canyon Lake in the Beartooth Mountains of south central Montana. Photo by Brent Zundel

The allure of the Big Sky, as seen from Black Canyon Lake in the Beartooth Mountains of south central Montana. Photo by Brent Zundel

Montana is an easy state to love. “Once you’ve gotten drunk on her soul-soothing nectar – a signature blend of wild beauty, passionate patriotism and new-age sex appeal – there is no way you won’t return for a second slurp,” croons the Lonely Planet travel guide.

With its demure diversity, Bozeman is equally easy to love. Citizens can stroll down Main Street and experience the infectious charm of small town America, while international scientists conduct research in the world-class Center for Biofilm Engineering a few blocks away.

Montana State University is able to attract brilliant – but significantly underpaid – faculty, while ski bums and future Boeing engineers alike travel to this mecca of intelligence and outdoors. Something powerful must attract such disparate folk.

In an Aug. 20 column in the Billings Gazette, Ed Kemmick perfectly captured this sentiment. While backpacking across Europe in the 1970s, during a post-Vietnam wave of anti-Americanism, Kemmick did not sew a Maple Leaf to his backpack like his compatriots. Instead, he began to tell people he was from Montana – nearly always eliciting a smile.

“It hardly mattered what country I was in. The questioner would almost invariably get a faraway look in his eye and say, ‘Ah, Moan-tana,’ as if experiencing nostalgia by proxy,” he explained.

What is it that sets Montana – and Bozeman especially – apart in the minds of people from a small Italian café to Roscoe’s Grizzly Bar (where the hell is that, anyway?).

The allure of the last best place and our untrammeled wildlands doubtlessly reinforce an idealized perception of this area in the minds of those who have never seen it. However, a more interesting question is what convinces those who do visit to set down roots here?

Is it watching the last fiery rays of a fall sunset kiss the Bridgers? Is it the blue-ribbon trout fishing in the Madison’s crystal waters? Or is it something else?

The natural beauty of the area is inextricably linked to the tight-knit community living in the shadow of its four mountain ranges. How does the power of place impact students who travel hundreds or thousands of miles to study at MSU?

Unlike the towns in which many other universities reside, Bozeman is a destination in and of itself. MSU is a critical part of the community, but if it did not exist, Bozeman would still attract granola-crunching Subaru drivers and Carhartt-wearing ranchers with its rugged Montana beauty.

The Bozeman community and MSU are inextricably intertwined – and each is better for this link – but both exist on their own. Bozeman is a vibrant mountain town; MSU, a world-class institution crawling with students.

One of the most important aspects of the integration of community and college is sometimes understated. The university imparts both hard facts and critical thinking abilities to its students, but it also prepares them to be engaged community members and contributing citizens. Without a supportive community like Bozeman, MSU would not excel in this regard.

With 10,000-foot mountains as the backdrop, perhaps this forms part of the uniquely Montana and uniquely Bozeman state of mind and part of the reason that visitors so often become residents.

Ah, Montana. Ah, Bozeman.


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